Brand loyalty in coffee is a weird thing to us. To be fair, there was a time and place for brand loyalty when there so few roasters/importers doing good work. But now there are many excellent roasters. And they're all over the place.
We see reviews from Yelp and other sites where 'reviewers' leave comments like, "Intelligentsia (or Stumptown or Counter Culture) is the only coffee I'll drink" or various variations on that theme. Those comments leave us scratching our heads. Especially since so many of those reviewers self-categorized themselves as people who really know coffee.
We still drink Intelligentsia from time to time. We served their coffee for many years because it was usually very good. We served Stumptown for awhile because their coffee was also generally exquisite.
But not always.
We've had some less-than-spectacular coffees from every roaster we've ever dealt with. When we were roasting our own we had some sketchy batches. It happens. Coffees are sometimes released for retail that to our palates are not fully developed, underroasted, overroasted or have other consistency issues. It happens.
We're not talking ethics here. Buying a brand based on a company's outstanding ethics is certainly a good thing. When you're talking Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture or most other microroasters that are following a direct trade model that includes sustainability in its practices, then the ethics are about equal. We're talking about taste.
One of the key reasons Starbucks became successful was due to their overroasted profiles - a level of darkness that provided amazing consistency by covering up (or roasting out) flavors and nuances of a particular origin. A practice which of course they learned from Peet's. Every cup had a trademark Starbucks "bite" from overroasting, regardless the origin of the coffee.
To this day, millions of consumers think that Starbucks, or Peet's, (or Folgers or Maxwell House for that matter) is how coffee is supposed to taste. That makes at least a little bit of sense as those coffees have very distinct and singular flavor points that most anyone with a decent palate can pick out as being theirs and theirs alone.
To suggest that Intelligentsia or Stumptown or Counter Culture or a hundred other microroasters who buy direct from farmers, sell primarily single origin (single farms/coops/plots/lots) coffees and roast much lighter than the mainstream brands have a common and distinctly singular flavor point tied to their brand across all their origins is silly.
Here's why: It's all about the coffee, not the roast. If you were to taste a triple picked Sumatra Aceh from each, you'd note that they were all tasty and certainly less earthy than any Sumatra you've had from a national brand. But you couldn't name which of the three companies roasted which coffee, even if you'd had prior experience with each company's offerings from prior years. One might have more acidity, one might be sweeter, one might be rounder.
But to say, "That one is definitely Intelligensia," no, you can't do that (unless perhaps you were cupping lots at origin).
It's fairly obvious even to the least educated palate that a Sumatra Aceh tastes different than a Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and a Kenyan tastes different than a Mexican Chiapas. The varietals are completely different in each case - bourbons vs. heirlooms vs. SL28s vs. caturras, etc.
But varietals are just one differentiator. You've got the country, the region within the country, the elevation on the mountain on which the coffee is grown (higher is generally better), the skill of the farm in terms of harvesting and sorting ripe cherries, the skill of the processors (pulping, drying), the handling post-processing, and all the variables one deals with during a growing cycle (rainfall, temperature, etc.)
In short, each harvest from each farm is completely unique each and every year. One year a coffee from X farm in Bolivia may feature grapefruit acidity with milk chocolate notes, the next year lime or tangerine acidity with more of a baker's chocolate in the background. It's not the same year to year in many countries.
You can make certain assumptions about certain origins - generally speaking Ethiopia Harrars will taste of blueberries, Sumatrans will have more earthiness than other origins and Kenyans will have some level of black currant. But even there, year to year, lot to lot, there are differences that most coffee consumers would perceive if they looked for them.
The bigger point is not every roaster handles each origin similarly. As much as we loved Intelligentsia the first five years we carried the brand, the year we offered Intelli side-by-side with Stumptown, we felt many of the latter's offerings were markedly better, particularly those from Costa Rica, Colombia, Burundi and Ethiopia. And it may have been that we would've felt differently the year before or the year after. During that same time, Counter Culture's PNG offering was the best we'd ever had from that island. Just last week Rich had an El Salvador from Handsome Roasters that he said blew away any El Salvador he'd had this year from any other roaster.
No brand is bigger than the coffee. No brand has a monopoly over the "best" way to roast a particular origin. Sure, some roasters can be counted on to consistently do a good job so you'll never (or rarely) experience a bad cup, but each origin, each crop, presents an opportunity for you to experience how a different roaster presents a coffee from a particular region.
If you really want to call yourself a coffee nerd or geek or connoisieur - or even a full-fledged foodie - you owe it to yourself to get out there and try as many as you can for yourself instead of remaining married to one brand and one roaster. We're certain you'll be surprised at what you taste and your eyes will be opened to even more of coffee's potential to delight and amaze.
And we haven't even touched espresso blends. That's another topic for another day.